Why Does CG Anime Have Such Low Frame Rates?

by Justin Sevakis,

Scott asks:

Hello! Recently I've seen some talk about anime CGI in regards to frame rates. I've read that Japanese animators tend to cut frames leading to not-so-great-looking final products. Can you explain the mechanics of this and why animators would choose to do it?

The anime industry has for years grappled with the problem of a lack of fresh young talent in the anime business. Poverty-level wages, insane workloads, eternally tight budgets and other obstacles has made it nearly impossible for anime studios to attract and retain talented young people. And so, as the old-timers have started dying and aging out of the business, anime studios have had to rely more and more on overseas studios working on more and more of the anime.

It's a huge problem that the industry really hasn't solved in a meaningful way at this point. But one of the solutions that studios have been working on is to replace the labor intensive draftsmanship of anime production with new-fangled computers. They're making use of a technique called cel-shaded CG, by which anime is modeled, designed and "photographed" in 3D, and then various filters are added to the characters to make them appear to be 2D line art. Then lighting effects, filters, grain, and other techniques are applied to make the fake-2D rendered anime indistinguishable from genuine, hand-drawn animation.

Well... that's the idea, anyway. In reality, while cel-shaded anime has come a long way from Catblue: Dynamite -- an early independent cel-shaded production that earned the ire of many anime fans -- it also still has a long way yet to go. Anime's time and budget constraints -- which, even with a huge team of talented people, still aren't going anywhere -- means that the beautiful, motion-captured and painstakingly detailed animation that 3D is known for in the West simply isn't possible. Animators basically had to re-learn how to create motion with this new software, to avoid everything looking weightless, over-smooth and fake.

They've come a long way. If you look at earlier examples of cel-shaded anime, such as the first Appleseed movie or Freedom, and compare it to last year's Expelled from Paradise feature film or Arpeggio of Blue Steel, the improvement in how close things get to real 2D animation is striking. People look like they're actually holding objects, rather than the objects just being strangely attached to their hand! People look like they're actually walking, rather than flailing their limbs. However, if you look closely, things still just don't look quite right.

Part of the problem is that not only are CG artists trying to imitate the look of 2D animation, but they're trying to imitate an aesthetic that was born out of cost-cutting. If anime had always been lavishly funded, it might have consistently been animated on 1's or 2's (that is, 24 or 12 frames per second, or a cel every 1 or 2 film frames). But it's usually far less. To try and match that, CG artists have started rendering at lower frame rates -- 6 or even 4 frames per second.

The thing is, regular drawn anime doesn't have a steady frame rate -- it fluctuates based on what's happening, and how the animation director wants to handle each cut. A fast action scene might be animated on 5's, while a slow, dramatic scene might only have a drawing every 2 or 3 frames. The fast motion tricks our brains into expecting a little bit of confusion, so we don't notice a lower frame rate as much during scenes of high-action, and our brains happily fill in the cracks. There are all sorts of little tricks to determining when more or fewer frames will suffice, and what mood that will create. There are even times when different characters are animated at different frame rates. Such variances in frame rates have been a part of how anime has been created since the Toei Douga era of the early 1960s. (More info on this can be found in this fantastic recent WaveMotionCannon piece.)

By just dropping frame rates across the board, that sense of control is lost, and everything just looks choppy. Rendering a cel-shaded anime at a standard 6 or 8 frames per second simply doesn't look very good -- it's not a replacement for that heavily modulated frame rate of hand drawn animation. But it appears that the CG staff do not yet have a good way to adjust the frame rates dynamically within a scene like that. So for now, it's yet another reason why hand-drawn anime is still king.

Things are changing very very fast, though. I wouldn't be surprised if these problems were resolved within the next couple of years.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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